India is not as interesting to the world as you might think

Many Indians feel stuck with Indians, that they are so good that they “belong to the first world”. That what they do is export quality, but they haven’t had a chance to catch the world’s attention. There are Indian entrepreneurs, writers, artists, scholars and activists who feel they would only be recognized in the ‘West’. As a result, many things Indians do are for international recognition. Prestige is something that comes from outside India. But the fact is that the world is not as interested in India as Indians imagine.

No one is more curious about us, or has much respect for us, or loves us in any particular way. Few find us interesting. In general, the world does not care about us. We’re not on anyone’s radar. We are neither cool nor hot. The world does not want to learn anything from us. In the perception of ordinary people, India is not so important. I was reminded of this when I visited France and Germany in April. But this is not an opinion born of recent travels, although by “world” I mean “the West”, and I know you do too. It’s not that we don’t matter; it’s just that we’ve become a boring in-between region.

The history of the world’s interest in India is probably a long one. Once we were rich, then esoteric, as charlatans promoted exotic ideas about us. As the West prospered, some of its wealthy found relief from their anxieties in a search for meaning, which they thought was hidden somewhere in India. Later, in the modern world, I witnessed the world’s excitement and fear of our seemingly endless cheap tech workforce. At that time, the hope for a new West in democratic India was born. The hope was that we would become a huge market for western products, like China, but nicer, more docile and understandable than China. All that hope and interest is gone. Today, we are neither too rich nor too poor; we have not done badly, our poor are not as heartbreaking as those of Africa. We are beyond condescension, but neither equals nor rivals of the West. As a story, we’re boring.

The only thing that makes India interesting to ordinary people in the West are the country’s supposed flaws – Narendra Modi’s popularity, his long baffling hugs from other world leaders, his refusal to condemn Russia in exchange for cheap oil and the perception that Muslims in India are being persecuted.

Modi’s public image in the West seems poor. He’s not yet demonized like Vladimir Putin was long before he attacked Ukraine, but maybe that’s only because India isn’t so relevant to them. Modi’s image there may not get any worse, but it is unlikely to improve as the moral compass of the West demands bad guys. Even Aung San Suu Kyi was canceled after she stopped talking like a virtuous schoolgirl and developed the complexities of a practical politician from a difficult nation. Modi’s image will not be saved by western conservatives because there is no such thing as a global right. The right everywhere is local, and when it comes to foreign issues where the stakes are low, they show the same righteous indignation as liberals.

It’s different from how ordinary people in the West view Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is not just a strongman who is framed by China’s atrocities. His image in the West is more complex than that of Modi; Xi is seen as a man controlling one of the most influential regions in the world. Everyone is interested in what they have to say, what China has to say.

It’s curious that I have to be reminded of the irrelevance of India during a trip to Paris for a book fair where India was the “guest of honor”. The French Embassy in India took me there to talk to the French people. I even have a publisher in France who has translated all my novels. Isn’t that interesting? Most Indian readers may not have read a single French author, not even Camus. But the thing is, my French publisher lost money betting on me. Not many Indian novels are translated into French and most only sell a few hundred copies.

There were large crowds of book lovers at the book fair who were mainly interested in their own nation, Europe, the rest of the West and perhaps Africa, which came back as the new flavor . I don’t think anyone even knew that India was “guest of honour”. India caught the eye when Indian dancers pounded out a folk dance. These days, when I hear “mast qalandar” in a global context, I know some Indians are selling world lemons.

From time to time, the West rewards an Indian writer or activist, but even that is proof of their self-centeredness, because the subject of their appreciation is usually someone who speaks like them, writes like them, has the same values than them or fights a battle they intricately sponsored.

Our interest in the West is also diminishing, but still high. We absorb Western culture, values, truths and half-truths, and many of us choose to live in a world where Westerners hold all the cards. We know what it means not to care about a region because we don’t care about most of the world. We find it difficult to accept that we are as peripheral to the West as Africa is to us.

In the global exchange of interests, there is a big deficit. It’s time to stop denying it. If a wide range of creators from all industries realized that India was all they had and they learned to respect the domestic market more and accept that all foreign contracts are just a matter of lottery , they might do things differently. But we must continue to tell India’s story to the West. Just that we first have to figure out how to tell a story that no one really cares about.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and creator of the Netflix series “Decoupled”

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